The England Coast Past

One of the things that impressed me so much when I became member of staff six years ago was the part the Ramblers played in the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act. The Ramblers lobbied for the right to a path, with spreading room, around the whole of the England coastline. If you were so minded, you could one day walk this, then across the coast to coast path, into Wales and all around there too, because as we all know the far sighted Welsh had already nearly finished their path. Technically, even though they don’t have a coast path, you can continue your walk around the coastline of Scotland thanks to the existing right of access they enjoy.

I was then surprised at how, rather than sitting back and enjoying the view, our volunteers were out walking the coast, proposing and mapping the best route for walkers and working with Natural England to get the most access possible. People like Brian Panton in Dorset, who secured some steps down to the beach to enjoy wonderful views over Portland Bill. Who else would do that?

Steps down to a beach

Little did I know that I’d be part of a team of people who had to campaign to save the path, not once but twice, to enthuse the public and politicians about what a wonderful legacy to our island nation this could be. I considered it to be one of the greenest, economically important and inspiring infrastructure projects of our time. Unfortunately not everyone felt this.

But by 2012, some years later, only 25km or so of new coastal path was ready, and all because of the Olympic sailing in Weymouth. Ramblers and our friends celebrated this, and eagerly awaited more news of work starting in other areas but in 2013, ironically in Cornwall, a place Ioved by many for its coastal walking, the then minister made some strange remarks about its future. Political will was cooling, funding looked uncertain, and having assumed because of cross party support that the Isle of Wight would be part of the scheme, we were now told no, they wouldn’t.

A warning shot and call to arms for Ramblers who had fought so valiantly for this expanded access. What did we want? A coastal path by 2020, the Isle of Wight included, the budget protected. We went into campaigning mode. 20,000 people signed our petition, we crowdsource funded our report, A case for coast, which highlighted the economic, health and environmental benefits this would bring.

An ice cream van branded with the Ramblers logo

We took the report to parliament, along with deckchairs which I hastily dusted off from the shed. We were the first (and for security reasons the last) charity to park an ice cream van outside the house and invite MPs to come and have a 99 and a chat. To this day I marvelled at the professional way Amber Rudd, now home secretary but then the member for Hastings and Rye, managed to stifle a yelp as she was stung by a bee whilst eating her ice cream.  We asked MPs to talk to the minister, we cheekily sent him presents from the coast, crab from Cromer, rock from Blackpool and so on until he’d speak with us. We talked to Newsnight about how communities which were currently cut off would be connected. I filmed a piece for Countryfile where I stood in Wales,  looking wistfully across the English channel at North Somerset, worried that we’d never have a fantastic path there. Many Ramblers members took their MPs for a walk and talk.

There was private influencing too. All the best campaigns are a mixture of both public and behind the scenes conversations. The coalition government were receptive, but when the consultation into the Isle of Wight’s inclusion into the scheme came back as a firm no and our lawyers advised that it was potentially a judicially reviewable decision, we knew it was time to bring out the big guns.

Isle of Wight Ramblers, led by David Howarth and Mike Slater, are formidable campaigners and amazing advocates for walking and the island. Having ‘persuaded’ Defra to hold a second consultation on the island’s inclusion, David and Mike worked with staff to make sure that representations were favourable. The government’s position was reversed within months.

Excitement mounted in September 2014 when the then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the path would be complete by 2020, ten years earlier than estimated. That December, in Cornwall, he pledged funding would be secure. Christmas for the Ramblers had come early.

Someone cutting a red ribbon to open a stretch of coast path

But then in 2015 with a change of government and another comprehensive spending review looming, we worried again. Would Rory Stewart be as supportive? I had the pleasure of talking to the minister whilst he was on a train as he made his way to the White Cliffs. He wanted to know one thing, why should anyone care about the coast path? It’s fair to say my enthusiasm meant the civil servant had to cut me off before I’d finished, but not before we’d agreed to a celebratory opening of the Kent stretch in the future. It felt like we’d saved the path again.

It’s an enormous achievement of politicians from all parties, Natural England, Ramblers volunteers, landowners and farmers that we’ll have this path in the future, and I’ll always be proud of the small part I played in this, together with so many incredible ramblers. But what of the future? A new National Trail when we know budgets are stretched? How can we play our part in helping maintain this work? How can we get more people out there enjoying the sea air? As I head off to the coast on holiday this month, these are the questions I’ll be considering. What about you?

We're celebrating all things coast this month following Natural England's announcement that work has started on all stretches of the path. Find out more and get involved here.